Republican Sculptor of
Plaster model of “Le Triomphe de la République” (detail depicting Justice). © Eric Emo/Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet
Two telling artifacts are shown at the beginning of “Dalou. Le Sculpteur de la République,” the first-ever monographic exhibition devoted to Jules Dalou (1838-1902), one of the 19th century’s leading sculptors. First, the 1883 “Buste de Dalou” by his friend Auguste Rodin, and second, a photograph of Dalou’s hands, accompanied by a page-long analysis of the shape of his fingers. Both items offer insight into the extraordinary career and character of a man who lived through some of the most turbulent times in French history and eventually managed to carve himself a place in its cultural landscape.
Born into a modest family in 1838, Dalou’s prodigious talent was noticeable from a young age. He first exhibited in 1861 and thereafter found work creating decorative sculptures for the city’s new “Haussmannized” architecture. Forced to flee Paris because he had participated in the Commune, Dalou spent eight very productive years working in England for some of the noted names of the day, including Queen Victoria. Upon returning to France, he spent the last decade of his life producing monumental statues for the city, the best of which are still to be seen sur place, among them the immense “Triomphe de la Republique,” which sits regally in the Place de la Nation and merits closer inspection than can be afforded from the average car window.
Too often overshadowed by his contemporaries, Jules Dalou was without doubt one of the heroes of his generation of artists. While his politics prevented him from winning prizes that might have catapulted his career into stardom sooner, his statues were characterized by their dynamism and informality from a young age. This infectious energy is most striking, perhaps, in “Bacchanal,” which shows a naked young woman being plied with a bunch of grapes. With this coin-shaped sculpture, Dalou captures the spirit of a good party and freezes debauched revelry in time, space and material better than many a modern photographer armed with the latest high-definition camera could.
The show, however, is at times an uncomfortable ride. The lavender wallpaper and cluttered layout give the exhibition an infantile, almost playroom feel that clashes with the artist’s works and gravitas. While both the beginning and end are powerful – the exhibition culminates with the famous “Grand Paysan,” a statue of a peasant unassumingly rolling up his sleeves – the bulk of the show is a confused tangle of overstocked cabinets and oddly placed pieces. This seems to be due to the room itself, much too narrow to give visitors the space to walk comfortably around the works and see them from all angles.
Despite the sloppy layout and claustrophobic space, however, “Dalou: The Sculptor of the Republic” is still a success. Thankfully, Dalou’s work is strong enough to speak for itself and rises above the exhibition’s drawbacks.
A companion exhibition at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, “Dalou: Focus on the 18th Century,” shows how the Republican sculptor’s work was influenced by the art of the Ancien Régime by presenting it in conjunction with that of such predecessors as Pigalle, Lemoyne, Houdon and Clodion.
Petit Palais: Avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris. Métro: Champs-Elysées Clémenceau. Tel: 01 53 43 40 00. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm (until 8pm on Thursday). Closed Monday and public holidays. Admission: €8. Through July 13. www.petitpalais.paris.fr
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